Happy birthday Kouat Noi.
The newly-minted 25-year-old celebrated with a buzzer-beating dagger triple that ensured the Sydney Kings avoided an overtime slog against the valiant Cairns Taipans.
After a lacklustre first half where nary a lick of defence was played, Kings flexed their muscles, Noi put an end to any hope the Taipans had of claiming a second win in as many visits over the Kings at Qudos Bank Arena, 106-103.
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Sydney allowed the Taipans to drill 10 first-half threes on their way to 62 points, the franchise’s highest scoring half in the 40-minute era.
But, down 11 half way through the third, a 19-6 surge was punctuated by a pretty Xavier Cooks buzzer-beating touchdown off a Jordy Hunter full court pass that gave the Kings a two-point advantage at the last change.
From there, the Kings might have blown the Taipans away. But these Snakes are hard to kill.
Heart-and-soul King Shaun Bruce keyed the resurgence, keeping superstar point guard Derrick Walton Jr rooted to the pine as he poured in 17 points, including a pair of threes in the last two minutes that put the Kings ahead.
His only blemish was two missed free throws with 12 seconds left, but it was a night where everything was coming up Brucey — he grabbed the offensive rebound, which eventually led to a huge Xavier Cooks dunk that put them up three.
But it wasn’t over. Taipans’ scoring machine DJ Hogg tied the scores with a straightaway three that sent the game to overtime.
Noi had a chance to take the lead for good, but his effort was deflected out of bounds, before he caught the inbound and made no mistake on his second chance.
Cooks floated through the first half before turning on the jets in the second, producing a typical stat-stuffing performance falling just short of a triple-double with 18 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists and a block and a steal for good measure.
The Taipans lost no respect in their performance, Rookie of the Year fancy Sam Waardenberg keying their record-breaking first half with 17 points.
As one Taipan cooled down, another heated up, with emergent star Keanu Pinder lifting his game in the third, before he fouled out with 18 points and wildly-talented offensive beast Hogg took over.
Hogg scored eight straight points late in the game to give the Taipans the lead on his way to 27 points, before Bruce and Noi’s heroics.
BIG BOOMER BATTLE
What a treat it is to see grand final MVP Xavier Cooks and emergent Taipans big man Keanu Pinder go to work. Both towers are in the Boomers squad for the upcoming FIBA World Cup qualifier against Kazahkstan and both are in the conversation for best big in the NBL. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more athletic pairing either, with both showing a proclivity to dunking on opponents and ripping rebounds off the rim.
BIRTHDAY BOY KUOAT NOI
Former Snake Kouat Noi made the switch to the Kings in the off-season, admitting that he’d lost love for the game. That love’s been rekindled and he showed out in the first half with 10 points in nine minutes keeping the Kings in it in the face of a three-point barrage. Once touted as an NBA hope, Noi is a luxury for the Kings off the bench — and clearly has that clutch gene.
The Phoenix Suns had a ‘seven seconds or Shaq’ philosophy during the Steve Nash years. These Taipans are more like ‘five seconds or Pinder’. It’s remarkable what these Snakes are doing without arguably their best player. Star import Tahjere McCall is still a fortnight away with a hip injury, but the Taipans haven’t skipped a beat in his absence. Feisty bench energiser Mirko Djeric was also missing from this game, but there’s an evenness across the roster that Forde built. It’s a team in his image, really, a little loose, a lot of fight. He warned us to write them off at our peril and, despite the loss, the Snakes are making anyone who did eat their words.
UNITED WIN THRILLER THAT LEAVES STAR IN HOT WATER
Melbourne United pulled off an emotional double-overtime win over Illawarra in a game where a late incident involving Rayjon Tucker could leave the star import facing scrutiny from the NBL’s game review panel.
Tucker, who was relegated to the bench as coach Dean Vickerman blew things up in search of a winning recipe, appeared to elbow Hawk Deng Deng in the stomach, then in the face.
With 19.6 seconds left and United up four, Tucker grabbed a board and, as he was fouled, the American import collected Deng twice.
His foul was upgraded on review to unsportsmanlike and, while he made his two free throws, Deng hit two of his own, before draining a corner three to reduce the lead to one point.
United hero Xavier Rathan-Mayes then made a layup, but it was the sniff the Hawks needed and the combustive Tyler Harvey,who had 21 points, made the game-tying three as time expired.
Both teams did their best to implode in the first overtime, but a pair of late threes from Rathan-Mayes ensured they could not be separated.
Against a team that had lost five in a row — and hadn’t scored more than 62 points in its past four — desperate United had the fortitude to hold off the determined Hawks, 106-100.
Vickerman lauded his team’s fortitude in fighting it out to end their own three-game streak.
Despite Perth forward Jesse Wagstaff’s citing over the hit that left Lachie Barker concussed earlier this season, Vickerman was not concerned the incident involving Tucker would attract the interest of the league.
“I didn’t think there was much in it,” Vickerman said.
“Unsportsmanlike, I thought he had someone shrugged over him and he kind of stood up and I didn’t see an unsportsmanlike and that’s what they called.
“I don’t think we’ve got anything to worry about right now.”
Hawk Sam Froling called both Tucker and Deng “pretty good actors”.
“I don’t think it was intentional, he ripped the ball and hit Deng and Deng kind of went forward and then he tried to rip it out of his hands again and then went up and collected Deng on the way up,” Froling said.
Exhausted former Hawk Rathan-Mayes was moved to tears, post-game, willing his team to victory over his former club, telling them during the overtime break “we’re not losing”.
“Whatever it took to win tonight,” Rathan-Mayes said, post-game.
“It was a tough week for us, Deano challenged us.
“We’ve been in a little bit of a rut and we wanted to get back to winning basketball and I wanted them (my teammates) to feel my passion and wanted to let them know we weren’t losing tonight.
“It’s a great feeling.”
The do-it-all Canadian produced a game of incredible substance, both on the floor and on the box score, drilling clutch basket after clutch basket on his way to 32 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals.
The Hawks stuck with a mantra of clamping down on captain Chris Goulding, holding him to just three made buckets in regulation and dared any other United player to beat them.
Big man Isaac Humphries did his best to fill the void, producing 20 points and 12 rebounds, including a clutch and-one with 41 seconds to go that gave United a game-winning buffer.
Humphries has worn criticism, but deserves time to work his way into peak form after a long injury lay-off. He missed a number of bunnies at the hoop — Once that touch comes back, look out NBL.
It doesn’t get any easier for the bottom-of-the-table Hawks from here as they head up to Sydney next Sunday for a date with the reigning champions, while, on Monday night, United hosts another surprising struggler in Perth.
BLOWING THINGS UP
Vickerman ended a tumultuous week where he walked back post-game comments about struggling American Jordan Caroline by inserting injury replacement Lachie Barker at the tip-off over Tucker and handing emerging 20-year-old David Okwera the start over veteran David Barlow. With Caroline facing a stint on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, Barlow off the bench proved a masterstroke. The 38-year-old knocked down a trio of threes that gave United much-needed scoring punch in the second unit.
Boomers big man Sam Froling rode the pine for long stretches in Illawarra’s last-start loss to Brisbane as he missed 10 of his 11 shots. The Froling United faced was a completely different player. He exposed them on the inside and hit from deep, while monstering them on the boards, ending the game with a dominant 27-point, 15-rebound double-double. Still just 22, consistency is the only thing holding him back from joining the upper-echelon of NBL bigs.
They’ve missed his effort, hustle, defence and leadership. Shea Ili will play his first game of NBL23 after a pair of headknocks left him with serious concussion symptoms, including brain fog. Cleared to play on Monday night against Perth, it remains to be seen how much of a role he will play, but any Ili is better than none for a United side that desperately needs a fresh injection of talent and experience.